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Olympic Games: Nagano backs down over skiing course

It may well have been the hardest fought 85 metres in the history of the Olympics. After a five-year battle over where to start the men's downhill, organisers of the Nagano Winter Olympics, which start on 7 February next year, announced yesterday that they are finally ready to back down.

Under a new plan announced after a meeting of the Games' top executives, the starting point of the downhill course on Mount Karamatsu, a rugged peak in the central Japan Alps, will be raised to an altitude of 1,765m (5,791 feet).

"I think we have not just a good course, but a very good course," Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, a member of the organising committee's executive panel said.

Getting up the hill was not easy, however. Organizers had originally set the start at an altitude of 1,680m. That would have made for the shortest downhill in Olympic history, a prospect that did not sit well with the skiing authorities, who wanted the start at 1,800m.

Nagano organisers, however, said they could not change the course because they did not want to infringe on land protected under national park zoning laws.

That position won some support from local environmental groups, but the organising committee's refusal to consider several compromise proposals offered by the skiing federation did not go down well with the general public. The skiing federation also pointed out that hundreds of thousands of recreational skiers use the same area each winter.

As mudslinging on both sides intensified, organisers decided last month they had no choice but to give in. "This is a sports event, so we must take the opinion of sports experts into account," Makoto Kobayashi, secretary- general of the organising committee said yesterday.